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Jane Bown: a life in photography – in pictures

Jane Bown, the Observer photographer known for her natural light portraits of the famous has died aged 89. One of the great British photographers, sadly missed.

Jane Bown: a life in photography – in pictures From The Guardian


Jane Bown: a self-portrait, c1986


Samuel Beckett, 1976Having thought she’d missed her quarry, Jane snuck round the back of the Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square, where after rehearsals of Beckett’s Happy Days, part of a season celebrating his 70th birthday, she caught him exiting via the stage door


Mick Jagger, 1977

From The Telegraph: 

Jane Bown, who has died aged 89, was an outstanding portrait photographer who confounded the experts with the simplicity of her camera technique. She spent 65 years on the Observer, for whom she took several thousand pictures of politicians, bishops, actors, pop stars and other celebrities, as well as ordinary people – miners, hop-pickers and women at a holiday camp – whose faces captured her interest.

Nearly all her pictures were snatched on location during the 10 or 15 minutes she was allowed while a reporter was interviewing someone for the newspaper. A tiny, round-faced, unobtrusive woman, she would appear with only a shopping bag, in which her camera would often compete for space with vegetables for that night’s supper.

This unthreatening demeanour had the effect of defusing a subject’s initial hostility. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones took to her and allowed her to stay long after the time allocated by their minders. This resulted in famous portraits of Mick Jagger and John Lennon in particular; she found Paul McCartney “a bit pompous”.

Her much-admired picture of Samuel Beckett, showing his face as a cracked desert of lines protruding from a white polo-neck, was captured at the stage door at the Royal Court after he had declined to see her. A very determined character beneath a gentle, nervous manner, she obtained a memorable portrait of Richard Nixon by crawling through the legs of the crowd outside his hotel and shouting to him to look at her……MORE


Queen Elizabeth II, photographed in 2006 for her 80th birthday. It was Jane’s 80th birthday that same year


The Beatles relax backstage in East Ham, London, 1963When someone asked Jane to leave at the end of the photo shoot, Ringo Starr insisted she be allowed to stay


Sir John Betjeman, 1972

See more of Jane Bown’s portraits in this extensive gallery

From the BBC …

Observer editor John Mulholland called her “part of the Observer’s DNA”.

Bown last appeared in the Observer offices in August, although by then she was too frail to take photographs.

‘Immense contribution’

Mr Mulholland said: “During more than 50 years working for the Observer, she produced some of the most memorable and insightful images of prominent cultural and political figures taken during the 20th Century.

“From the Queen to the Beatles, Samuel Beckett to Bjork, John Betjeman to Bob Hope, her beautifully observed pictures have become part of our cultural landscape.

“She is part of the Observer’s DNA – her contribution to the paper’s history, as well to Britain’s artistic legacy, is immense, and will long survive her.

Jane Bown spoke to Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in 2006

“She was loved by her colleagues and adored by our readers. We will miss her hugely.”


Jane Bown: turning the lens on Britain’s shyest photographer

In The Guardian

She’s always preferred being behind the camera, but from her childhood passed around a circle of aunts to her time as a Wren in the second world war, Jane Bown had a story to tell – and it took her friend and assistant Luke Dodd to persuade her to tell it…

She claimed that her portrait photography came about because of her reputation for working rapidly and for mastering the most adverse circumstances or awkward individuals. An ideal shoot for Jane was 10 minutes, enough time to really see the subject but not enough for the initial spontaneity to disappear. She cornered the most reluctant of subjects, Samuel Beckett, in a dark alley down the side of the Royal Court theatre as he tried to give her the slip. His enmity is palpable but he stood long enough for her to expose five frames. It was all over in less than 30 seconds – the middle frame is now regarded as the archetypal Beckett portrait.

Samuel Beckett, leaving the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London in 1976

Samuel Beckett, leaving the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London in 1976 Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer

She became a photographer in 1946 when, as a recently demobbed Wren, she applied, on a whim, to the UK’s only full-time photography course at the Guildford School of Art. Although she didn’t own a camera and had never taken a picture and the course was already over-subscribed, its director, Ifor Thomas, accepted her as he had also worked in the navy during the war. Painfully shy, she sat looking out of the window for the first two terms and the teacher almost gave up on her. With £50 borrowed from an aunt, Jane purchased her first camera, a Rolleiflex, and the world came into focus. She still talks of these early photos – abstract studies, still-lives, Gypsy children, fairgrounds, farm-workers – as her best work, adding, “I was never really interested in people or portraits – that came later … I was happiest moving about seeing things, still am. These pictures are the real me.”

'Sharp-elbowed': Jane Bown among a scrum of male photographers fighting for a shot of Bette Davis at

‘Sharp-elbowed‘: Jane Bown among a scrum of male photographers fighting for a shot of Bette Davis at the London Palladium in 1975. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

 Looking for Light: Jane Bown is out this week. The DVD is out on 26 May. An exhibition of Bown’s work runs at Kings Place, London N1, until 31 May.

Read the full article here



How to take a photography portrait in 10 minutes

When time is short or the location is a disaster, every photographer needs some tried and tested ideas to fall back on. Here are a few tricks of the trade

David Bailey once said, “I’m very quick. Ten minutes, that’s about enough time for a portrait.”

How long should it take to shoot a portrait for the Guardian? Probably longer than the time our photographers are often given: interviews run over; subjects are busy people; it’s a daily newspaper, and arrangements are often made at the last minute; the pictures are wanted for a pressing deadline.

So you’re the photographer who has been assigned the job, you’ve rushed at the last minute to arrive at an unprepossessing building where the subject is finishing an interview in a dull room. It could be in a bland hotel or an office decorated in an even blander shade of beige. What do you do next?….READ MORE HERE

This useful article in The Guardian doesn’t really tell you anything you couldn’t work out for yourself by looking at pictures of important people in newspapers and magazines. Most photographers have their style, their go to way of photographing and rarely shift far from it. Jane Bown, who photographed for the Observer was a case in point. See how she always uses light from one direction with preferably a dark background. Very effective.

We teach about natural light portraiture on our Portrait courses

One photographer who makes is living photographing the very important and to whom 10 minutes would be luxury is Ander McIntyre his website is absolutely full of images of presidents, politicians, scientists, artists and others in the public eye and all photographed in about 2 minutes. Go and have a look at his remarkable portraits and learn.








EricParryAll images ©Ander McIntyre